How many things in life work great the first time around?
Is there anyone who can just pick up a worthwhile discipline or skill after reading a book and trying it once?
Can you learn to paint, knit, sew, or cook with one shot?
Can you remember the first time you tried to ride a bike? I was taking spills all over the school yard for weeks until I caught on and learned how to balance myself. I eventually spent hours riding down a small hill that would have been terrifying at first.
This past summer I started running regularly. I had been somewhat active in the winter by taking the occasional long walk, but running was a different animal altogether.
I huffed and puffed, forcing my aching legs to keep going a little further before taking a walking break. My runs were something like 60% slogging along and 40% walking at first. I eventually started to run a little bit more evenly and started eliminating the walking breaks.
At a certain point around the middle of the summer, I realized that the first 25% of the run will just be miserable. I’ll start to find my stride about the mid-way point, and then the last 25% will require a bit of intention to keep my pace.
Finally, this September, I started to feel strong and confident during my runs. I didn’t even need headphones in order to play distracting music. Sure, the first bit of the run was still hard, and I had to be intentional about pushing myself to finish strong, but I finally reached a point where I felt strong and confident enough to run at a steady pace without slowing for a break.
If I had stopped running after the first day or even the first month, I would have told you that running is difficult and miserable and no one should ever try it.
If I stopped running today, I would genuinely miss it. It has proven an important way to start my day, and I have seen the benefits in my mental and physical health.
Over the past year, I’ve also taken my exploration of Christian prayer into a deeper pursuit of silence, waiting on God and letting God show up in whatever way God wants. There have been times when I’ve just watched my mind unwind with worry and rambling ideas. Other times I have experienced genuine peace and awareness of God’s love.
Then again, there are plenty of times when it has just felt like I sat by myself for 20 minutes repeating a word to myself like “beloved” or “peace.”
I have long practiced short stretches of silent prayer, say for about five minutes, at the end of my daily Examen. I’ve also meditated on scripture. This pursuit of God through silence and waiting is really, really biblical since the Psalms constantly tell us to wait on the Lord. However, I feel like I’ve been trained to demand.
I’m a recovering anxious American evangelical who loves quick fixes and spiritual growth charts.
Silent prayer feels like: I want my gold star for praying, Jesus. You’ve got 20 minutes to pay up…
This journey into silence is not easy for me. My mind is rowdy and difficult to tame.
I find myself slipping back into bad habits, comparing myself to others and wanting what God hasn’t given to me. Contentment and faith gives way to envy, greed, and discouragement as I look at all of the other people who appear to have it together.
I keep reminding myself of that runner who huffed and puffed along the bike path a few months ago who could barely string together 20 minutes of sustained running. That guy felt so weak and pathetic. He didn’t see how things could get better.
Honestly? I never saw things get better. The improvement in my running was so gradual that I couldn’t see it happen. I couldn’t control it.
My growth as a writer was like that too. Suddenly, one day I started writing markedly better manuscripts compared to the drivel I used to submit to my editor. Yes, there are always revisions, but the process is less painful.
I’ll be the first to tell you that prayer isn’t quite as difficult as it used to be. I can now sit for twenty minutes in a row with a relatively focused mind. Sometimes I sense God moving, and sometimes my mind does all of the heavy lifting.
It’s a long-term process that you can’t plug into to your life for predictable results every time. Prayer isn’t a life hack or commodity that you can install in your smart phone for an instant solution to a problem.
There’s a whole industry that promises quick, cheap, simple serenity or spiritual enlightenment. Just read the book, try something for five minutes a day for a week, or install an app in your phone, and you’ll make amazing strides in your spiritual life!!!
God’s love is a free gift that we can never earn, but each day feels like a knock down, drag out struggle to find it and experience it. My life is so full, my mind moving so fast that it’s hard to slow things down for God to settle in.
I can’t track my progress. I don’t get stickers every time something good happens while I pray.
But it sure seems like any kind of meaningful development in a lasting practice calls for this kind of dogged, determined pursuit for what matters the most.
It’s galling for the American in me to come to terms with a lifelong approach to discipleship, what Eugene Peterson called a long obedience in the same direction. Each day I’m training myself to believe that I am loved by God and that this love can gradually change me into the kind of person who is also able to extend a kind, gracious, patient love to people who would rather just grab the quick fix.
This is the first time I’ve ever practiced such intense, expectant waiting. It’s no wonder that I feel like I’m not very good at it yet.
Read more about the basics of contemplative prayer and Christian spirituality in my latest book:
Flee, Be Silent, Pray: An Anxious Evangelical Finds Peace with God through Contemplative Prayer
On sale for $2.99